The Argument Against College Sports
College sports are a paradox: Ostensibly undertaken for the pure love of the game, they are in reality a high-risk professional venture with millions of dollars at stake. The controversy around Cam Newton of Auburn is only the latest of many “improper benefits” scandals, such as those surrounding OJ Mayo at USC and the UNC football team, in which the athletes and their programs were penalized for trying, for a lack of a better way of describing it, to participate in the free market.
Though star college athletes can potentially generate huge revenue for their schools (even to the point of having their likenesses used in video games, the subject of a current lawsuit), and even though they run the risk of crippling injuries, they can’t be fairly compensated due to NCAA rules. Rather, in the name of “amateurism,” the NCAA creates baroque and restrictive rules that work against market forces and inevitably give rise to black markets as universities compete with one another for the much-in-demand talents of best players. College sports—or, more accurately, men’s football and basketball (sorry, Title IX)—are a big money enterprise in everything but name.
Or are they making money? As Andrew Zimbalist, Professor of Economics at Smith College, points out in his masterful, nuanced analysis in his recent book Circling the Bases, most teams are actually financial losers. For instance, only seven NCAA Division I schools out of 220 managed to run profits consistently during a five-year study. The average loss was $9.87 million per school per annum, which is enough to pay the salaries of almost two hundred first-year professors at $50,000 a year.
This is not new information, but rather something we’ve known for several years: College sports are akin to a high-stakes poker tournament. Only a few will come out on top, though everyone thinks they have a shot at the pot. Yet, schools are more than willing to pay the price of admission, which includes everything from needlessly exorbitant coaching staff salaries to capital projects such as stadiums, even at the expense of their own best interests.
To reiterate: Athletes such as Newton and Mayo may be hot commodities, but they are by and large fetish commodities. Their market value is not the result of the real value to their schools, but of the status they bring. College sports are a losing proposition.
So if college sports aren’t making a profit, who is subsidizing them? Answer: The students and faculty. “The relationship here is very simple,” Zimbalist wrote in an e-mail. “If a school has to put $20 or $30 million into athletics, then it is $20 or $30 million that it does not have for the educational budget.” As a result, students have to pay more in tuition and fees, and may find themselves being taught by overworked adjuncts rather than by full-time faculty. Sports, in short, may have the slight chance to raise a school’s profile, but they almost inevitably actually impoverish it, diminishing the actual quality and value of the education. “The take-away is clear,” Zimbalist writes. “As schools contemplate the expected social value of their athletics program, it is important to consider the trade-offs between athletics investments and investments in academic departments, research, or infrastructure.”
Furthermore, as many college professors will tell you, the “student” part of “student-athlete” is all-too-often a farce. To keep up in the hyper-competitive world of college sports, even in Division II, requires just as much practice and preparation as in professional sports, leaving precious little time and energy for academics. I’m not saying that there are professors being told to pass athletes or else—such incidents are rare, though of course pre-tenure faculty and adjuncts are more vulnerable to pressure—but coaches are master strategists. They know which professors and courses are athlete-friendly and direct their players there. What’s more, the school often lets in players who have no business being in college in a first place. As Jonathan R. Cole recently pointed out, even roughly one-fifth of Ivy League admissions are recruited athletes. If playing the eligibility rules and allowing students to graduate with non-majors such as “recreation” is shameful and dilutes the value of the school’s degree, how much more is letting in those who are not prepared for college?
It’s obvious that college sports, though they contribute much to a school in terms of reputation and college life, also consume necessary funds and detract from the real mission of education. But what to do about it? One could say that the purpose of universities is to educate and that the NFL and NBA can run their own farm leagues and pay young athletes what they’re worth on the open market, but this is highly unlikely given the amount of financial and social capital already invested in the enterprise.
Zimbalist gives some rather more realistic options in his book: artificially high coaching salaries are in sore need of reform (what are they going to do? coach high school?), the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) should be broken up, and the number of scholarships needs to be curtailed. The issue is from where such reform will originate. “Serious reform has never been possible within the NCAA, and presidents and governing boards have resisted using their organizations to build athletic reform,” Zimbalist said via e-mail. “Congress, too, has been reluctant to get involved.” But such reform is urgently needed, even at southern colleges where football seems to be the main industry: “What’s new now is that there is a crisis in the financing of higher education and athletic deficits are ballooning, from a median of $10.2 million among the FBS [Football Bowl Schools, formerly Division IA] schools in 2008–09 to a projected $22 million in 2015 and $44 million in 2020 if we continue along the current path,” Zimbalist points out. “Increasingly, college presidents and trustees are recognizing that the status quo is not sustainable.”
If we learn anything from the Newton case and those like it, it should be that college sports are broken. The elite competitors are only the most visible part of this: Schools throw away money that could be better invested in actual research and teaching, while the players whose talents make the machine run—and who put their bodies on the line—are not fairly compensated. To fix the system will take real work and tough decisions on the parts of university leaders—but until this is done, we will all suffer.
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